Scott McLaughlin scores first career IndyCar victory in St. Pete Grand Prix

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ST PETERSBURG, Florida — Scott McLaughin backed up the speed of his first career pole position with his first NTT IndyCar Series victory Sunday, winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over defending series champion Alex Palou and teammate Will Power.

McLaughlin, 28, led the final 21 laps after inheriting the lead on a pit stop by fellow New Zealander Scott Dixon, who was on a different strategy.

He fended off a furious charge by Palou after the defending series champion was helped by McLaughlin getting held up by Jimmie Johnson, Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, with 12 laps remaining.

STATS PACKAGE: Results, points and box score from St. Pete

But McLaughlin, who led 49 of 100 laps, held on after losing 2 seconds off his lead after Palou got within a car length.

“I’m exhausted,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “What a day. I’m out of breath here. It was crazy. I really struggled the last couple of laps to keep my head and save the fuel, but we did it. It’s unreal. Love you in Australia and New Zealand and miss you guys.”

It was the second consecutive season for a first-time winner in the season opener as McLaughlin joined Palou, who won at Barber Motorsports Park last year.

It was close,” Palou said. “It was really, really close, but I don’t think we had the pace he had today. He was on rails, and he knew where to go fast and where to obviously save some fuel at the end. I was just there trying to make some pressure so hopefully he made a mistake or anything, but no, he was all good.

“Congrats to him. I’m super happy that he got his first win. Yeah, I’m happier that we got our first podium of the year.”

It was only the second podium finish in 18 IndyCar starts for McLaughlin, a three-time Australian Supercars champion who had a best finish of second at Texas last year.

After placing 14th in the points during a quiet rookie season, he entered the 2022 vowing to take a more vocal role on and off the track for Team Penske — and he accomplished both in his first race of the season.

“Oh, I can’t believe it,” said McLaughlin, whose family remains in New Zealand and Australia because of pandemic restrictions. “Mom and dad, my sister, I know you guys are watching at home.”

Colton Herta finished fourth, followed by Romain Grosjean, Rinus VeeKay, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Takuma Sato.

After McLaughlin dominated in leading the first 25 laps, the race’s complexion changed with its only caution when rookie David Malukas hit the Turn 3 wall.

McLaughlin led a parade of lead-lap cars into the pits, which cycled Alexander Rossi (the only driver who had yet to stop) into the lead ahead of Dixon, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Kyle Kirkwood, Felix Rosenqvist, Devlin DeFrancesco, Dalton Kellett, Jack Harvey, Rinus VeeKay and Callum Ilott.

McLaughlin was in 13th as the first driver out of the pits.

The race stayed caution-free after that, and McLaughlin cycled back into first on Lap 62. After his second and final pit stop, McLaughlin moved back into first on Lap 80 when Dixon made his third stop.

Traditionally known for a plethora of yellows and wrecks on the tight downtown street course, the season opener was unusually clean Sunday.

But Lap 1 produced its usual drama into the Turn 1 right-hander as a record-tying 26 cars scrambled for position at the first corner.

The big mover was Pato O’Ward, who zoomed from 16th to ninth on the first lap with a series of bold inside-outside passes through the first two turns.